how would you answer?

With the aid of turnitin.com, I caught a number of students in my large class who plagiarized an ungraded book comment assignment.  They were given a zero on the assignment and a formal letter of discipline describing specifically what they did and were and told that a copy of the discipline letter would be forwarded to the dean.  University policy is that if there is no other academic dishonesty on their record, no further action is taken and these letters are not part of the student’s permanent record, no notation is made on the transcript, and the records are generally covered by the confidentiality laws.

One student whose dishonesty was particularly egregious — involving re-submitting a paper that had been submitted by another student in a previous semester (an act I consider to indicate a strong likelihood of other undetected offenses) — was most concerned about whether this would affect her applications to a medical professional program.   I told her at the time that I personally would not want a medical professional treating me who had a habit of cheating her way through school, but clearly and honestly explained the confidentiality policy to her, repeatedly.

Now I get a note from her.  She has to decide whether to check yes or no to a question about whether she has ever engaged in misconduct.  She says “I would never lie” on the application “so if this is info they will have access to I will check yes” but fears that being honest about her dishonesty (if you get my drift) will hurt her application chances (as perhaps it ought to).   As far as I know “they” will not have access to the information, but it is also true that she has been formally disciplined for misconduct.

What would you say to her?  I’m thinking of saying: “Isn’t the honest answer to the question yes?”   But I sort of feel like saying: So you think dishonesty only counts if people know about it?

In her defense (and that of the other students who cheated), the assignment was ungraded, you just had to do it, which led them to console themselves that it did not matter much.  But back on the first hand, the syllabus clearly stated that cheating on the ungraded assignments would be prosecuted as plagiarism.

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

16 thoughts on “how would you answer?”

  1. I would say: If the question asks “Have you ever” whether they have access to this record or not is immaterial. If you have ever participated in misconduct, and you do not want to lie, then answer the question as asked. If the question is if you have ever been disciplined for it, that is another question to which I do not know the answer.

    I think that’s what I would say.

  2. Yuck!

    Must you respond to her? Why should the burden be on you to figure out how she deals with this mess she’s created herself?

    Note that whatever you respond, you’re basically going on record with that statement. My advice: don’t respond, how is it your responsibility to fix this problem for her?

  3. Sounds like she wants you to confirm that the records are confidential, so she can go ahead and check “No”. Her “I would never lie” is clearly missing the clause “if I seriously thought I was going to get found out”.

  4. My advice to her would be to check yes, and then to somewhere in the application explain exactly what the misconduct was and what the consequences were (without, of course, whining or making stupid excuses). Of course, I agree with Kieran re: her motives for asking, but she asked for your advice so you don’t need to really tell her whether or not the information is confidential.

  5. You could pull out some Yoda:

    “Not if anything to say about it I have. Once you start down the dark path, forever it will dominate your destiny, consume you it will.”

    If it were me, I’d respond that if she truly wants to be honest on the application, then checking the ‘yes’ box is the only option. And if she doesn’t truly want to be honest, then, well – the dark side clouds everything. Impossible to see the future it is.

  6. If I were you: I don’t think I would tell her anything. It’s a decision she needs to make for herself. If anything, I would tell her to refer to the University’s policies and to be clear about what the question is asking re: “engagement” vs. “discipline.”

    If I were her: I think that most people who have engaged but were never caught would not check yes. While it’s dishonest not to, I can’t imagine anyone would rat themselves out without an incentive to do so. With the obvious disclaimer that I am not a cheater, and find it morally reprehensible, if I confirmed that the only way in her circumstance that the other institution would find out about the misconduct was if I told them, then I wouldn’t tell them. It would place her at a disadvantage otherwise. On the other hand, I’m not so sure that these things don’t get out one way or another, confidentiality laws or not. It would be a risk worth taking, though.

  7. I would either not response or say just “Of course you are obliged to check yes.” and leave it at that. It’s not your job to explain FERPA to her, etc..

  8. Your students cheated on an ungraded assignment? How dumb is that?

    Of course she should check yes but I don’t think it’s appropriate for her to ask you what to do. I’d tell her that she has to take responsibility for whatever decision she makes completely on her own. Time to grow up.

  9. I agree with the general sentiment as well: it’s not your problem to tell her what to do here; she got herself in the mess and can handle it herself. Presumably there must be a dean or other official at your institution (at UNC it’s the honor court officer) who can give advice?

    So I’d stick with: “well, the answer to the question is ‘yes.’ You figure it out.”

  10. How about suggesting that the misconduct question might be a ruse? Since nearly everyone has engaged in misconduct at some level, maybe the school assumes that anyone who denies ever having engaged in any misconduct is lying. (Of course, the question might not be such a ruse, but you don’t have to tell her that.)

  11. Thanks for all the thoughts. I appreciate getting the various perspectives, which is what I need. I suppose (@9) I should clarify that the assignment, while ungraded, was time-consuming, as it involves reading a book and writing the assignment as proof that one has read the book. So the cheating involved pretending to read a book she had not read. I’m leaning toward the passive aggressive say nothing response because I already gave her all the information she needs for an informed decision — including pretty much spelling out the FERPA restrictions — and basically was forced by the principle of truthfulness to reassure her that no one would find out if there were no other record in the dean’s office. I have the additional little problem that I have not actually sent the letters to the dean yet as I got busy and did not get around to it, but I do intend to send them.

    Some of the other students who were caught expressed shame and humiliation at the revelation that they had been dishonest. What was so annoying about her all along was that her only concern was about whether it would hurt her “record.” I don’t think she has any shame or remorse at all for the actual act of cheating, she just justified it on the grounds that she was too busy to have time to read the book.

  12. Update: The student emailed again, had called the dean and wondered why there was no record. I told her I’d call the dean but would not give her any advice. I talked to the dean, sent off the laggard letters (hers and the others) to the dean by email, and told her to call the dean (a different one than she had talked to — I’ll save you the bureaucratic details). The dean said she has to answer “yes” or risk losing her license if lying on the application is ever found out, that people have lost their licenses for failure to disclose on an application.

  13. she was too busy to have time to read the book.

    Jeez.

    I had a student call my home when I was the TA for his course – he called at 11:00 the night before the paper was due. “I’m sorry, it’s just not jiving,” he said.

    This past semester I received the following email, the day before the final exam, from a student who was averaging an “F”:

    wuz up i wanted to kno wat do i have to do to pass your class

    There are many, many joys to teaching where and what I teach. These are not the high points!

  14. Have you read article in Journal of Management Education on cheating published in October 2007? Dr. Grace Ann Rosile shares her experience of having to flunk almost 25% of her senior level class.

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